By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2011 12:50PM
Suddenly, everyone in the Pacific Division is going for redemption or rebuilding. Even the Lakers. They stepped into the unwelcome classification too after not merely losing in the playoffs, which happened before during the run as the dominant team in the West, but after being embarrassed in the second round of the playoffs.
So, let the climb back begin, together.
2010-11 record: 57-25
Finish: First in Pacific Division
Playoffs: Defeated New Orleans in Western Conference first round (4-2), lost to Dallas in Western Conference semifinals (4-0)
Strengths: You say aging fast, they say experienced. If the Lakers know what it takes to win a championship, or at least make a long playoff run, then they surely know what it takes to get back. Having that kind of fire lit under them -- volcano is more like it -- will be a big part of the back story as the league watches to see how they respond to the second-round no-show against the Mavericks. Any roster that includes Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum can never be counted out.
Challenges: This is a veteran team that has played, and won, with the Phil Jackson system and now gets the transition to new coach Mike Brown. There will undoubtedly be an adjustment period. Needing a couple months to sync up will be fine. Needing much of the regular season will increase the frustration level that went skyward late in 2010-11. And if health issues again force Bryant to the sideline for practices, as was the case last season, the challenge multiplies.
Outlook: For all the wreckage of the playoffs, this is still a 50-win team that will remain a factor in the West until proven otherwise. It's just that maybe the Lakers have started the proving process. The sweep by the Mavericks was that damning. Now the Lakers get a long chance to show that was a bad moment at the very wrong time, not the beginning of the end.
This could make a difference: The Lakers are one of the few contenders that could realistically be looking at multiple lineup changes, to an extent that would have seemed very unlikely at the start of last season. Brown has none of the loyalty to Derek Fisher in the way that Jackson offered unwavering support. The flip side is that no one has shown the ability to replace Fisher. That's not the case if Brown wants to pull Ron Artest -- Odom can be dropped in at small forward.
2010-11 record: 40-42
Finish: Second in Pacific Division
Strengths: Their reputation lives on, even if the success does not. The Suns still have ageless Steve Nash and remain one of the top offensive units and therefore a worry for opposing coaches. They're not just high scoring either, firing away. The Suns were seventh in shooting last season and fourth behind the arc.
Challenges: It's not just that coach Alvin Gentry has to fix the defense that went from respectable to regrettable in one season. After being as surprised as anyone by the sudden change, he has to figure out what went wrong in the first place. Plus, there's the rebounding problem, but that's more constant than recent development.
Outlook: The continued presence of Nash makes the Suns must-watch TV, so they're in good shape if the goal is to be entertaining. If it's winning, that's another story. Phoenix could touch 40 victories again, but is an underdog to reach the playoffs for the second straight season. So much needs to go right just to get to .500.
This could make a difference: Everything changes if the Suns alter the internal course and trade Nash, after saying they would not. Any deal would undoubtedly deliver a package heavy on young players, draft picks and cap space, and that would mean more losses in the moment. But, as hard as parting with such a popular and respected player would be, it would also start the serious work on the needed bridge to the future.
2010-11 record: 36-46
Finish: Third in Pacific Division
Strengths: The backcourt was already a scoring machine with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry and, just as important, the starters were only getting better individually and in playing together. But now Klay Thompson arrives via the draft to add much-needed size at guard and create trade options. It happens with the organization generating more positive energy than in years. That does not instantly translate into wins, but the intangible emotions are welcome for a fan base that has endured so much bad.
Challenges: Like everyone said last year, and the year before, and the year before that, and the year....: The defense and rebounding both need major upgrades before the Warriors can be considered anything more than a fun team with no chance of doing damage in the playoffs. Or even getting to the playoffs.
Outlook: The enthusiasm is understandable. The Warriors are making forward progress, they have changed the culture, they are spending big on the court and behind the scenes. That's just different from walking to the playoffs in step with the guarantee from new coach Mark Jackson. They need about a 12-game improvement in a season when the biggest roster move (lottery-pick Thompson) is projected as a reserve.
This could make a difference: There is always a transition period with a new coach. And now the coach is someone who has never worked a sideline, not even as an assistant, not even in college. Adding to the challenge, Jackson comes in with a most-unusual offseason, no summer league and a rushed training camp. He needs to sync up with the roster on the fly.
2010-11 record: 32-50
Finish: Fourth in Pacific Division
Strengths: It's not just the presence of Blake Griffin, now past the rookie learning curve, although that would be encouragement enough. The Clippers have a roster loaded with potential, trade options and an unprotected first-round pick from the Timberwolves for the 2012 draft. What a feeling to have Griffin, the underrated Eric Gordon, depth/deal possibilities at center with Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan, a streamlined payroll and a shot at the No. 1 choice.
Challenges: Keeping it all together is the eternal Clippers challenge. On the court, the task is to reduce turnovers for a team that got caught up itself on getting Griffin the next highlight moment. More simple plays and Griffin's continued improvement at passing out of double teams will do them good.
Outlook: Clear skies and open freeway. It is obviously a stop-us-if-you've-heard-it-before moment, but the fact is that no roster in the Pacific is better positioned for a long future. Making a big move this season and reaching the playoffs would be an important statement about potential merging into reality.
This could make a difference: General manager Neil Olshey told NBA.com last season the time for possibilities is over and that he expects the Clippers to make the playoffs in 2011-12. The line in the sand will probably be seconded by everyone in the locker room, but this is a team that has not played with pressure and real expectations before. How they handle that burden, without being able to sneak up on opponents thanks to the Griffin-generated heat lamp, will tell a lot about the actual direction of the franchise.
2010-11 record: 24-58
Finish: Fifth in Pacific Division
Strengths: The recent emphasis on becoming more physical, as opposed to the Sacramento rosters known for being skilled but not for toughness, paid off with the Kings finishing second in rebounding percentage and first on the offensive boards. While part of that was due to Samuel Dalembert, a free agent who may not return, DeMarcus Cousins will become a double-digit rebounder if he settles down enough to earn more minutes and trade acquisition J.J. Hickson should make a major contribution.
Challenges: The Kings too often still play with a lack of leadership, focus and maturity. While they don't shoot well -- rookie Jimmer Fredette will help, but only so much if he is getting reserve minutes -- and don't defend, the biggest need for improvement is in the locker room.
Outlook: The playoffs are still far in the distance. That isn't the measuring stick for the season. To have a successful 2011-12 on the court, since issues off the court could ruin the mood in Sacramento no matter what the standings say, the Kings most of all need a bounce-back campaign from Tyreke Evans and signs that Cousins is growing up. Until further notice, they are the foundation of whatever future the Kings have.
This could make a difference: The Kings may be entering their final season in Sacramento. Whether that remains a matter for the business side or develops into a distraction in the locker room could impact the performance of a roster that has had trouble staying grounded over lesser issues. Players and coaches will say all the right things about not being sidetracked by zip code uncertainty. Whether it actually turns out that way remains to be seen.
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